Striking Legal Services NYC attorneys and staff took their protest Wednesday to the offices of the organization’s chairman at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, shouting for his removal and denouncing proposed cuts to health care and retirement benefits.
While marching outside Milbank’s downtown New York City office at 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza, they carried signs bearing slogans such as "Milbank Partner Guts Legal Services" and chanting against Joseph Genova. "What’s disgusting? Union busting? Who’s disgusting? Joe Genova," they shouted, led by a man with a bullhorn, as several police officers monitored the rally.
Later in the day, management and union representatives met for more negotiations. Management presented a new contract offer to the union, said the program’s executive director, Raun Rasmussen. The union has not yet responded to it, and the two sides are scheduled to meet again today.
At Wednesday’s two-hour demonstration, dozens of union members and supporters from other groups marched at Chase Manhattan Plaza.
Members of the Legal Services Staff Association have been working without a contract since July 2012. The union, a unit of UAW Local 2320, represents attorneys, paralegals, secretaries, social workers and other staff.
More than 200 lawyers and staff from Legal Services NYC walked off their jobs on May 15 after voting overwhelmingly to reject management offers for a new contract. The group has pledged to continue operations with just under 40 managers handling cases.
Members have demonstrated outside Legal Services NYC locations since going on strike, but this is the first time during the current dispute that union members have marched outside a board member’s office, said Ian Davie, a Legal Services NYC senior staff attorney serving as a press liaison for the union.
The point of the protest was to pressure management and make a public statement on how the union feels, Davie said.
Lynn Ventura, a senior staff attorney at Legal Services NYC and a member of the union’s bargaining team who also demonstrated outside Milbank’s office, said that in the short-term, union members want to work out a contract and go back to work. But in the long term, "we don’t want him [Genova] on the board."
Ventura added, "He’s the driving force preventing settlement" of a new contract.
Union members distributed a flyer, labeled as a "summons and complaint" in the "people’s court" against Genova, claiming he had failed to adequately fund, raise and anticipate funding trends, while he obstructed labor negotiations and insisted staff "accept crushing and fiscally unnecessary cuts to health care and retirement benefits."
Milbank’s reception hall is on the 47th floor, but the firm had to take notice of the demonstration as law firm staff headed to work in the morning. In one instance, a man who was offered a flyer told a demonstrator as he walked to the firm’s office, "I can’t; I know Joe Genova."
Genova and a representative for Milbank did not return calls for comment, but in an email, he told the New York Law Journal, "Neither the firm nor I will have comments personally" and directed requests for comment to Rasmussen.
"That’s pretty classic political theater," Rasmussen said about the flyers. "I don’t think anybody on our board would take that seriously."
"Joe has been a strong and effective leader on our board," Rasmussen added. "We’re united with our shared mission of saving as many jobs and services as we can."
Rasmussen said that it is "absolutely not true" that Genova has obstructed labor negotiations.
"Joe and the entire board are working closely and effectively" with management to steer toward a new contract, he said.
Concern from City Council
Meanwhile, in a letter last week, 43 New York City Council members told Rasmussen, Genova and vice chairman Michael Young that they are "particularly troubled that the LS-NYC Board and management appear more concerned with forcing employees to accept benefit cuts than reaching a fair and equitable settlement."
The City Council members said they would be monitoring the situation closely and urged management to come to an agreement soon.
"Management’s budget projections do not take into account any possibility that the cuts to LSC funding may be less than projected, depending on what happens in Congress later this year. It is clear that extracting these cuts at this moment in time would be harsh and imprudent," they said in a May 23 letter.
Rasmussen, Genova and Young responded that the group’s federal funding has been cut by more than $8 million annually, and its health insurance costs are increasing.
"This combination of funding cuts and high health insurance expenses forced us to reduce staff by 40 people in 2012 and we project many more layoffs by the end of 2014," Rasmussen and the board members wrote.
They said they are working hard for an agreement so staff can return to work.
In an interview, Rasmussen said he wasn’t surprised by the letter from the City Council members, as "they’re concerned, like we’re concerned."
The union’s president, Gibb Surette, said he is "very gratified" by the members’ support.
"Our response to the City Council is, thank you," he said.
Legal Services NYC continues to turn away some potential new clients due to the strike. Rasmussen said the group has been referring some people to other legal service providers. He speculated that "scores" of people have been turned away, but he didn’t know exactly how many.
Meanwhile, the union says the organization has been saving $310,000 a week with its employees on strike.
"When people are not working, they are not getting paid," Rasmussen acknowledged, but he added, "when our staff is not working, we cannot bill our funders for their time. As a result, any savings in payroll will be partially offset by lost funding."
In the past couple of weeks, Legal Services NYC has learned about an extra $1.1 million in funding over three years from Legal Services Corp. The extra money arose after Legal Services based its funding on a different census that tracked a slightly higher poverty population in New York City, Rasmussen said.
Rasmussen said the extra money "allows us to make a slightly different offer" than the one management made earlier this month, but he declined to discuss terms of the new offer.
"We made a significant offer, we’re hopeful that they are seriously considering it, and we look forward to seeing them on Friday," Rasmussen said. "We listened to their concerns very carefully at the bargaining table."
Davie confirmed the union received a proposal Wednesday and that the parties will be meeting again today. Davie, declining to discuss the proposal details, said union members hope to get back to work.
Christine Simmons writes for the New York Law Journal, a Daily Report affiliate.